Earlier this week I allowed myself to catch up on the Sorcery! series, learning wot I think of the first two games. And since then I’ve been mainlining the third, released just last week. Inkle’s latest, Steve Jackson's Sorcery! Part 3: The Seven Serpents [official site], makes some significant advances on what were already fantastic games – is it for the good? Here’s wot I think:
Yes. Don’t want you to be worrying about that question for long. This is spectacular, a brave and fascinating evolution of what can only just be described as “interactive fiction” at this point. A bold step away from the confines of the source material, and a coherent and completely novel (fnarr) experience.
Much initially remains the same. You move your character (hopefully the same one you brought through the previous two games if you’re to enjoy this to its fullest, but it’s definitely not necessary) as a game piece across the undulating map of its latest area, making binary, ternary, quaternary choices that unfurl a completely unique experience of the game. You are still in pursuit of the evil Archmage, who has stolen the Crown of Kings, and threatens to destroy all that’s lovely with its dubious powers. But then, gosh, it gets more interesting.
Sorcery! 3 makes a huge diversion from the previous two games, and indeed from the book on which it’s based. Instead of following the choose-your-own-adventure formula of weaving through a linear path, it opens things up such that you’re able to relatively freely move around the wilds of Kakhabad. Essentially, developers Inkle have taken lessons learned from their splendid 80 Days and applied them to this ongoing series. With that, the game gains a greater focus on the passing of time, with movement seeing the sun creep across the sky, night requiring rest and shelter, and rations a far more prominent feature of the game. It has, in quite a remarkable way, managed to combine Jackson’s original Fighting Fantasy story with elements of survival games.
I wasn’t at all comfortable with this at first. Primarily because I was coming to the third game with an expectation of experiencing a bespoke story via my unique path, and not expecting such a broad change after the particularly claustrophobic nature of Sorcery! 2’s Khare city. But quickly it all fits into place – what Inkle have done here is something really rather extraordinary, bravely stepping away from the source material to present it in a very different way. And it’s a way that works.
And it’s far, far more complex than that. Via some lovely special effects on the game’s central map, you are soon able to manipulate regions of the area to transport themselves through time, with a gap of thousands of years. The brutal wasteland of Khakabad becomes Iskhabad, a wondrous and idyllic land of plenty. In the present day you must fight the seven serpents that give the book/game its name, but to do so you’ll need to manipulate ancient towers that can cast broad beams of magical time-changing light across the land. This means you can walk in and out across that time boundary in a particular region, deliberately aim the beam such that fallen bridges or abandoned towns become restored once more, and progress through the huge area via this temporal manipulation. I’m guessing the book didn’t quite manage this.
The result is a majestic game, elaborate in ways its simple (but lovely) presentation doesn’t hint at. Moving the tower beams around the game’s map is on its own a beautiful thing, and then there’s the treat of re-exploring an area (albeit in very specifically fixed locations) in the different time zone, learning the history of the area, and digging far deeper into the tale and mythology of the evil Archmage than before.
It also makes the Rewind mechanic even more interesting. In all three games you can undo any choices you’ve made in any location by rewinding time to any previous point in your journey. How strictly you allow yourself use of this determines how much you can “game” the system, allow yourself to find your ideal path, or force yourself to commit to actions and decisions that may prove rather costly. This time out it feels like sometimes it’s positively pushing you to experiment, with lengthy encounters with individuals that can easily end in death, meaning you’ll have to go back and pick a smarter route through the chat, or indeed avoid it altogether. Not often, but here and there, and I found it rather pleasing.
While issues with the zoom levels on the map are much improved since the last game, it’s pretty crummy to notice that the same glitches and graphical errors with the dice game, and the madness of the spell selections screen, remain. Not particularly serious, but a shame to see the same bugs go from game to game. Although, honestly, that’s about as much fault as I can find to pick here. This is pretty stunning stuff.
It’s interesting to make such significant changes to the nature of the game three parts into a series – especially a series that allows you to play the same character, decisions, inventories and consequences all the way through. But there really aren’t any barriers to entry for new players – conversation options offer to explain key concepts again, or acknowledge you already know – and what a bloody huge treat for those who have been there from the start. (It’s well worth noting that if you played the last two a good couple of years back on your telephone, you can still transfer your character to PC with a simple code.)
The question came up last time about whether there was a good reason to play these games on PC over a portable slab, and honestly, no, there isn’t. They’re perfect mobile/tablet games, and find their most natural fit there. But they still work splendidly on PC, and most of all, on a much bigger screen. Mouse instead of finger, everything else bar portability is the same.
So yes, goodness me yes, get hold of this. Get hold of the first two, too. But most of all, get this.
PS. “Kakhabad”? Really, Steve Jackson? Did you have “Poopooyuckh” in your next book?